Can/Should You “Petition The Lord With Prayer”

The summer of 1969, just before my senior year in high school, was filled with songs, adventures and events which effect me to this day. The Doors, led by the tragic, self-destructive poet, Jim Morrison, released a complex and adventurous album called, “Soft Parade”.  The title song began with a chant, “When I was a young man in seminary school, there was a person there who put forth the proposition that you can petition The Lord with prayer”. This introduction ends with the scream, “You cannot petition The Lord with prayer”, leading to the song itself.

Obviously, Jim Morrison’s background and lifestyle had nothing to do with Judaism, but, echoing from 45 years ago, he points at a contemporary paradox for both Judaism and all other prayer-based faiths. The past month, beginning with the kidnapping/murder of the three young Israeli students, Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer and Naftali Fraenkel, all of blessed memories, continuing through the ceaseless rocket attacks against Israeli citizen, originating from Hamas-ruled Gaza, has led to numerous rabbinic calls to recite Tehillim (Psalms) and to say special prayers for safety and well-being.

As we know, in the case of the kidnapped boys, the prayers and Psalms didn’t yield the desired results and the third Gaza war is still underway. I remember, during both of my parents’ final illnesses, praying/pleading for their recovery; there, also, I didn’t see the outcome I’d so desperately wanted. But the efficacy of our prayers is only one side of this complex question. Although it’s often promoted by many wise and prominent rabbis, both now and in antiquity, and is also presented as effective numerous times in the Torah (Sh’mot 32:11-14, BaMidbar 12:13 and others), and, along with fasting is mandated as community response to looming disasters (Megillat Esther 4:17 and others), there are also serious questions about not merely the efficacy, but also the propriety.

A friend, Brian Blum, recently published a very revealing and personal column in the Jerusalem Post which addresses these ideas. I’ll try to not repeat the points he so strongly makes and I hope you’ll read it for yourselves.

I do want to emphasize that there is something that seems theologically fishy in trying to manipulate the Infinite God, be it with words, both prayers and Torah recital, with increased mitzva observance, “good acts” of generosity and love, of fasting and communal coalescence. Of course, each of these activities are positive and can yield untold benefits both to the individual and to the world at large, but it’s very arrogant to think that we understand the mechanisms underlying them or that they, somehow, give us power over God.

Of course, we also have a very rich tradition that tells us the exact opposite, that a Tzadik (holy righteous person), presumably through prayer, has the ability to both decree, expecting God’s fulfillment and, even more powerfully, to cancel God’s own decree! (Moed Katan 16b). We also have the prayer of Yitzchak to heal Rivkah from her barrenness (Bereishit 25:21) where the Talmud (Yevamot 64a) teaches that God extended Rivka’s period of barrenness because He “so loves the prayers of tzaddikim“, and perhaps, like it often does, the Talmud provides an opening for an answer.

The paradox is that we are, indeed, encouraged to enter prayer (tefilla) in order to make requests of God. The paradigm of Jewish prayer, the Amida, also known as the Sh’mona Esreh (literally, the eighteen, although in fact it contains nineteen prayers) opens with  of three “prayers” of praise and ends with three of thanksgiving. On weekdays (when the Amida does, indeed, contain all nineteen prayers), the middle section, referred to as Bakashot, requests, is just that, presenting a shopping list to God three times each day! And if the formalized liturgy doesn’t provide for more personal issues, we’re encouraged to add our own words at various points. And this is just on “normal” days, times where we don’t have crises that seem to need Divine Intervention!

(It’s important to emphasize before proceeding that phrases such as “God wants”, “God promises”, and the like are never to be taken literally, but to give us humans a language with which to approximate and develop our understanding of the ineffable.) God “wants” our prayer and indicates this through halacha (Jewish law). There are times that He indicates that our prayers can be granted, but there is never a promise that it will work.

In other words, our tradition goes very far to incentify us to pray, but if we do pray with too much expectation to get what we want, we’re likely to become increasingly disillusioned (which can lead to alienation and worse). With such a potential downside, the glaring question is “Why?”

Throughout the day and throughout our lives, we’re given many opportunities and many “channels” to enhance our relationship with God (or to enhance our awareness of that relationship since it’s impossible for us to not be permanently connected). Torah study opens the intellectual/imaginative/creative/analytical “channel”. Mitzvot which involve actions bring our bodies and materiality into the game (Judaism is not, by any means, an ascetic tradition, but it’s aim is to refine, rather than merely indulge, our bodies). Mitzvot of tzedaka (charity) and hospitality and community participation, independent of their obvious benefits, bring us into our communion with God along the parameter of relationship. Similarly, prayer, tefilla, deepens our relationship with God along the emotional plane.

It’s not impossible that the benefits that accrue to our universe with enhanced relationships between God and man might lead to a better material world, i.e. a world where our desires become actualized. It might, in certain times (that we have no ability to predict) be very effective, but although our desires provide the stimulus to pray, having our desires fulfilled is definitively not the real objective of tefilla.

So, these special prayers and special mitzvot, if they do indeed deepen our connection with The Creator along the prayer “channel” are good things. The crises may very well motivate many of us to steps of spiritual progress and growth. They give us and often-highly-motivated boost. But the ultimate purpose is not to receive the “goodies” on the other end.

And, in face of the paradox, I personally do pray for a secure and safe future for all living in Eretz Yisrael.

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37 Responses to Can/Should You “Petition The Lord With Prayer”

  1. Sweet Shabbes from Canby, OR!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Mr. Cohen says:

    Negotiations with the Arab leaders beyond Palestine were being carried out by T. E. Lawrence, who informed [Winston] Churchill on 17 January [1921 CE] that he had concluded an agreement with Hussein’s* eldest son, Emir Feisal, under which, in return for Arab sovereignty in Baghdad, Amman and Damascus, Feisal “agreed to abandon all claims of his father to [West] Palestine**.”

    * Sherif Hussein of Mecca
    ** West Palestine means Israel and East Palestine means Jordan.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews
    (chapter 5, page 46) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  3. Mr. Cohen says:

    Winston Churchill said this in year 1921 CE:

    “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion [Islam] paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde* force exists in the world.”

    * VOCABULARY NOTE:
    The word RETROGRADE refers to an object which moves in the backward direction or degenerates to a worse condition.

    SOURCE 1: Churchill and the Jews
    (chapter 6, page 53) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    SOURCE 2: An older source for this quote:
    The River War, by Winston Churchill in 1899 CE,
    http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/1592070/posts

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  4. Mr. Cohen says:

    Winston Churchill said this in a parliamentary debate 1921 June 14:

    The Wahabis*, Churchill noted, “profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practice themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and make slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahabi villages for simply appearing in the streets. It is a penal offense to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette…”

    * HISTORY NOTE: In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission identified Wahabism as a cause of Islamic Terrorism.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews
    (chapter 7, page 67) by Martin Gilbert, 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  5. Mr. Cohen says:

    In the year 1922 CE Winston Churchill said this:

    “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps towards the irrigation and electrification of Palestine.

    They would have been quite content to dwell, a handful of philosophic people, in the wasted sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of the Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews
    (chapter 7, page 81) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  6. Mr. Cohen says:

    This comment from Winston Churchill appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle dated 1929 September 12, one day after he said it:

    “The Jews have developed the country, grown orchards and grain fields out of the desert, built schools and great buildings, constructed irrigation projects and water power houses and have made Palestine a much better place in which to live than it was before they came a few years ago. The Arabs are much better off now than before the Jews came, and it will be a short time only before they realize it.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews
    (chapter 8, page 91) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  7. Mr. Cohen says:

    The 1929 September 13 edition of the New York Times
    printed an article which quoted Winston Churchill saying:

    “To Jewish enterprise, the Arab owes nearly everything he has. Fanaticism and a sort of envy have driven the Arab to violence and for the present the problem is one of proper policing until harmony has been restored.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 8,
    page 92) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  8. Mr. Cohen says:

    As for the Arabs of Palestine, [Winston] Churchill wrote [in year 1929 CE],
    they had been brought, as a result of the Jewish presence there:

    “Nothing but good gifts, more wealth, more trade, more civilization, new sources of revenue, more employment, a higher rate of wages, larger cultivated areas, a better water supply; in a word, the fruits of reason and modern science.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 8,
    page 92) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  9. Mr. Cohen says:

    In his memorandum [to Winston Churchill on July 16, 1937, Zev] Jabotinsky stressed that a partitioned Palestine would create a Jewish State too small in area to be defendable from sustained Arab attack from outside it.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 11,
    page 125) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  10. Mr. Cohen says:

    [Winston] Churchill was emphatic that the partition [of Palestine] would be a mistake.

    The small Jewish State envisioned in the Partition plan, he argued [in 1937 CE]:

    “Can be ravished by its enemies, defeated in war, annexed to other powers or suffer any of the other incidents that are common to small States in the fortunes and chances of war.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 11,
    page 131) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

  11. Mr. Cohen says:

    The policy of Partition [of Palestine], [Winston] Churchill warned [in year 1937 CE]:

    “Will not lead away from violence, but into its very heart;
    will not end in peace, but in war.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 11,
    page 133) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  12. Mr. Cohen says:

    Winston Churchill said this in 1937 CE:

    “[Winston] Churchill did not accept that the Jews
    were a foreign race [to the Holy Land]. He said it was
    the Arabs who had been the outsiders, the conquerors.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 10,
    page 115) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  13. Mr. Cohen says:

    Winston Churchill said this in 1937 CE:

    “When the Mohammedan upset occurred in world history, and the great hordes of Islam swept over these places, they broke it [Palestine] all up, smashed it all up. You have seen the terraces on the hills which used to be cultivated, which under Arab rule have remained a desert.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 10,
    page 116) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  14. Mr. Cohen says:

    Arab extremists [in the Holy Land in 1938 CE]
    murdered several hundred Arab moderates.

    COPYIST’S NOTE: History repeated itself
    in the 1980s CE when hundreds of Arabs who favored
    peace with Israel were murdered by their fellow Arabs.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 12,
    page 140) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  15. Mr. Cohen says:

    “The Cabinet [the government of Britain in 1938 CE] was convinced that a quiescent* Arab and Muslim world was essential for Britain, and that if appeasement was required to secure that quiescence, the government’s commitments to the Jews in Palestine were an obvious sacrifice. The fate of the Jews in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv had become vulnerable to pressure exerted in Delhi, Karachi, Cairo, Baghdad and Riyadh; pressure that was proving all-too effective.**”

    * VOCABULARY NOTE:
    One dictionary defines QUIESCENT as: quiet; still; inactive or motionless.

    ** EXPLANATION:
    The British government responded to pressure from Arabs and Muslims by blocking the paths of Jews who were fleeing from Nazi Germany to the Holy Land. As a result, thousands of Jews who could have been saved from the Nazi Holocaust were murdered, because Arabs and Muslims did not want Jews living in the Holy Land.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 12,
    page 144) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  16. Mr. Cohen says:

    “One result of this particular appeasement policy [towards the Arabs and Muslims] was an upsurge in official British pressure against Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who were trying to reach Palestine without Palestine certificates, the essential documentation without which they would not be allowed to enter. With Lord Halifax’s approval, British diplomatic pressure was put on five governments, those of Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, not to allow illegal immigrants to transit their countries en route for Palestine.”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 13,
    page 154) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  17. Mr. Cohen says:

    …on 20 April 1939 [CE], Neville Chamberlain (*) stressed that
    it was of immense importance with regard to British strategy:
    “to have the Muslim world with us.”

    [Neville] Chamberlain added:
    “If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”

    (*) BIOGRAPHY NOTE: This was the same Neville Chamberlain who was infamous for his unsuccessful attempt to appease Nazi Germany by letting them have the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 14,
    page 157) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  18. Mr. Cohen says:

    “At the same time [in year 1939 CE], at least 500 Arabs had been killed by their fellow Arabs because they had advocated good relations with the Jews, and were unwilling to oppose continued Jewish immigration [to the Holy Land].”

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 14,
    page 157) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

  19. Mr. Cohen says:

    After stressing, as he [Winston Churchill in year 1940 CE] had
    done several times before in the House of Commons;
    that the Jewish settlers had made:

    “tremendous strides in recent years, while there was
    no prospect that the Arabs would ever abandon their
    primitive methods of cultivation.”

    Churchill told his War Cabinet colleagues that it was
    a “striking fact” that the Arab population had shown
    the largest increase in those areas where land
    had been purchased by Jews.

    SOURCE: Churchill and the Jews (chapter 15,
    page 168) by Martin Gilbert, year 2007 CE

    CHRONOLOGY:
    Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister
    from 1940 to 1945 CE and from 1951 to 1955 CE.

    • Mr. Cohen,
      Thank you for the attention you give to my writing, but I’d, and my other readers, would greatly appreciate it if you could direct your comments to the actual subject of the articles.
      Many thanks,
      Rabbi Zeitlin

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